In Arabic, the word farhud means a violent dispossession or mass killing.
A pogrom, in other words.
On June 1 and 2, 1941, the Jews of Baghdad were subjected to such an outburst of unbridled violence. Claiming hundreds of victims, it was probably the worst antisemitic incident visited upon the venerable Jewish community of Iraq, whose origins predate the rise of Islam in the Saudi peninsula.
American author Edwin Black contends it was a well-planned pogrom organized by Arabs aligned with Nazi Germany. He sets out his thesis in The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust (Dialog Press), a book that delves into all its conceivable dimensions, and then more.
Black moves massive mounds of material, some tangential, to tell his important story. Since the primary theme of The Farhud is related to Iraqi Jews, Zionism, Palestine, Britain’s imperial role in Iraq and Germany’s ambitions in the Middle East, Black spends a great deal of time – too much time, in fact – examining all these issues.
Consequently, his 448-page book feels padded and overly long. But if you’re patient, you’ll be amply rewarded. The Farhud, for all its flaws, is a worthy addition to the historiography of the modern Middle East.
Black, a journalist who has previously dealt with the wartime period in books such as The Transfer Agreement and IBM and the Holocaust, starts cutting to the chase with his chapter on Germany in the Middle East.
Describing 19th-century Germany as “the Muslim’s world’s non-Islamic bulwark against Europe,” he elaborates upon Germany’s relationship with the Ottoman Empire and, later, its support of the Zionist project in Palestine.
Reaching the 1930s, he gets still closer to the main subject. Black writes about Arabs who sought out friendship with Nazi Germany, which, he points out, considered all Semites, whether Arab or Jew, at “the bottom of the racial ladder.”
In this connection, he zeroes in on the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was eager to establish ties with the new Nazi leadership so as to combat Zionism.
After analyzing Germany’s quest for oil in the region, he pivots to Iraq, to which Germany had sold weapons and where a pro-British prime minister, Nuri al-Said, severed relations with Germany at the outbreak of World War II.
The plot thickens when Said is replaced by a pro-German figure, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, the grand mufti’s comrade-in-arms.
By his actions, Gaylani angered the British, whose influence in Iraq looms large. On May 6, 1941, Germany, having received an urgent appeal for help, dispatched aircraft and Luftwaffe personnel to Iraq. In desperation, Britain recruited David Raziel, a radical Zionist leader imprisoned in a British jail in Palestine, for a mission to destroy oil refineries in Iraq and thereby deny fuel to the Germans.
Tragically, he and three comrades were killed near a British military base in Iraq. Several days layer, Adolf Hitler declared Germany’s support for Iraq and its liberation from British colonialism. This was followed by Britain’s decision to land forces in Iraq and Gaylani’s and the grand muft’s flight from Iraq. Germany was thus denied Iraqi petroleum for its imminent invasion of the Soviet Union.
With Germany’s threat to Iraqi oil supplies vanquished, Britain sends troops to Vichy Syria to head off a possible advance by Germany into Syria and Lebanon. The Palmach, a Zionist strike force whose members include Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan, takes part in this operation. In the process, Germany loses a potential base in the Middle East.
At this juncture, Black finally sets the stage for the farhud.
By 1941, 87,000 Jews lived in Iraq and nearly half resided in Baghdad, the capital. Having arrived in Mesopotamia 2,600 years earlier, they were fully integrated into Iraqi society and did not identify with Zionism. “Iraqi Jews, like most Jews in Arab lands, were genuinely anti-Zionist,” he says.
Backtracking, Black offers a brief account of Nazi activities in Iraq in the 1930s.
On the eve of World War II, Fritz Grobba, Germany’s chargé d’affaires in Baghdad, wired a report to Berlin claiming that Iraqi Jews were agitating against German and Italian interests in Iraq.
Grobba, having converted an Iraqi Christian newspaper into a Nazi organ that had published Hitler’s Mein Kampf in installments, warned in his missive that Jews should exercise caution. As he put it, ”If the Jews continue to make it difficult for Iraq with their deeds, a day will come when the anger of the masses will erupt, and the result will be a massacre of Jews.”
Returning to 1941, Black writes that intimations of a pogrom ominously emerged when Jews were accused of collaborating with Britain, and Arab mobs broke into a Jewish hospital in a futile search of coding machines.
There is more.
Pro-Nazi Iraqis drew up lists of Jews in Baghdad and marked Jewish homes with blood-red symbols to guide pogromists.
Meanwhile, with British soldiers battling Gaylani’s forces, the Iraqi regent who had been recently ousted returned to Iraq under Britain’s protection.
He was greeted by, among others, a delegation of Iraqi Jews who had come to pay their respects. Iraqi troops in attendance attacked them with knives and axes, but a planned pogrom dissolved into a spontaneous farhud as frenzied mobs murdered Jews in Baghdad. Women were raped. Men were beheaded. Babies were dismembered.
In many instances, Black notes, regular police either joined the killing spree or declined to interfere. Aghast by the violence, Baghdad’s mayor phoned the regent and beseeched him to order loyal army units to suppress the farhud. By one estimate, as many as 600 Jews were killed.
Black claims that the farhud became “a cherished event among Arabs in Baghdad, not a source of shame.” He adds that the pogrom was a “turning point in Arab hatred for Jews” inasmuch as it inspired further pogroms in the Islamic world.
“Hitler’s war against the Jews of Europe came to a colossal, toppling demise on May 5, 1945, when the Third Reich finally cracked” he observes. “But it continued throughout the Arab world as the forces of hatred refused to subside. It still burned fiercely in Arab capitals as a million Jews in Muslim lands were targeted for persecution, expropriation and expulsion during the several years after the 1948 birth of the State of Israel.”